Cultured meat is also known as synthetic meat, clean meat and in vitro meat. Cultured meat is produced through in vitro cultivation of cells of a chosen animal. It does not involve animal slaughter. Cultured meat is a result of cellular agriculture. The concept of cellular agriculture is not very different from traditional techniques used in tissue engineering that forms the crux of regenerative medicine. A lot has been written about cultured meat in the last two decades, especially in the last five years since evolving biotechnology enabled the production and subsequent testing of the first ever lab grown meat. Is lab grown meat the future, is it going to be a niche or for the masses, would people accept it as a substitute and consume it, is it or will it be viable from the financial perspective and more importantly is it necessary?
History of Cultured Meat
Cultured meat may have captured popular attention in recent years but the concept is over eighty years old. Winston Churchill had once suggested that it will perhaps be possible to grow a particular part of an animal that is widely consumed instead of growing the whole animal. This more or less had set the tone in industrial circles of a theoretical possibility of cultivating meat in laboratories or factories for mass consumption. The first breakthrough was not until 1971 when Russell Ross succeeded with his in vitro cultivation of fibers. These muscular fibers were derived from the intima and inner media of guinea pig aorta. The immature tissues were grown through cell culture for as many as eight weeks. The cells continued to maintain the natural morphology, thereby growing into smooth muscle. Russell Ross is credited with the most defining moment in the history of cultured meat when his multiphase cell culture showed remarkably positive outcomes.
Subsequent developments over the years lead to stem cell culture in the nineties that paved the way for growing small quantities of animal tissues that in theory could be cooked and consumed. It was still unsure if the cultured meat could actually be consumed by humans. NASA became hyperactive since the turn of the century and has been carrying out a vast array of experiments to grow cultured or clean meat using turkey cells. The first such edible sample was grown in 2002. Cells of goldfish were cultivated to look, feel and taste like fish fillets.
The concept of clean or synthetic meat was made popular through the first decade of the twenty-first century by Jason Matheny. He coauthored a seminal paper on production of cultured meat. He also created New Harvest. It is the first nonprofit organization in the world committed to supporting research pertaining to in vitro cultivation.
2013 was the most distinctive year in the history of cultured meat. A professor at Maastricht University, Mark Post showcased to the world the first ever proof of concept for cultured or in vitro meat. The lab grown meat was used for the unprecedented burger patty. It is fair to say that many in the world noticed the development, some hopefully and many with skepticism. It was only after Mark Post showcased the proof of concept that the world has started talking about cultured meat becoming a reality, not some piece of science fiction or elusive theory that looks good on paper and as an idea but not a viable or practical substitute for what nature offers.
Cultured meat is not commercialized yet. It is unclear if people around the world will even consider lab grown meat as a substitute, regardless of its obvious benefits, one of which is avoiding animal slaughter. Finances are also important as the first proof of concept took over three hundred thousand dollars to produce. Recent reports are closer to viability as estimates point out a cost of around eleven bucks to produce the same on a mass scale.
Clean meat is actually a patented product. Jon F. Vein secured the patent in 1998 in the United States. The patent applies to production of meat using tissue engineering for consumption. The patent covers use of cells, both muscle and fat, to be grown in integrated processes to make food products including fish, poultry and beef.
No one presently has the worldwide patent for cultured meat. Wiete Westerhof and Willem van Eelen, dermatologist and medical doctor respectively, along with entrepreneur Willem van Kooten had filed for such a patent in 2001. A lot has happened since. A steak grown from stem cells of a frog was cooked and tasted in 2003. Tissue Engineering started publishing peer reviewed journals since 2005. PETA kicked in with million dollar prize for the first ever company to successfully bring chicken meat grown in a lab to the consumers. Many governments around the world have also announced similar prizes.
More than thirty laboratories around the world are presently researching cultured meat and are at various stages of nearing completion. Some have actually grown cultured meat successfully and their products have been consumed. Dr. Mark Post’s burger patty that took more than two years and over three hundred thousand dollars to make can now be produced at around eleven dollars but it is still much costlier compared to ground beef available at stores. An Israeli company called SuperMeat and an American company known as Memphis Meats have publicly announced they are working on cultured meat.
What is Cultured Meat? Really!
Those who have tasted cultured meat, the burger patty developed and showcased by Dr. Mark Post in particular, have reported striking similarities with standard meat. Reviewers have written about the consistent texture, the intense taste and the bite associated with meat. The lab grown meat is not as juicy as standard or normal meat but it is not a concern as the taste, flavor and appearance have no major difference. It is only a matter of time before the meat will become juicier and perhaps even better than standard meat. The scope of possibilities is immense and unprecedented. There is really no way to tell how amazing cultured meat can get in due course of time. Experts have cited that lab grown meat is actually meat and not a soya based substitute.
Cultured Meat vs. Conventional Meat
Lab grown meat has become a necessity for many reasons. The global demand for meat and animal products is at an all time high. The unprecedented demand is set to surge further as the population grows and people opt for more varied culinary choices. Cultures are intermingling and culinary preferences are no longer dictated by local, social, customary and religious compulsions. If cultured meat is as affordable as or cheaper than conventional meat, then there is no reason why it cannot be a better substitute. This is excluding the fact that personal preferences of many people may still find conventional meat to be a more natural choice.
The most obvious difference between cultured meat and conventional meat is the dependence on artificial cultivation in the former and hence the lack of need to slaughter animals which is unavoidable in the latter scenario. This tectonic shift may not happen overnight and will have ramifications. Not all implications will be positive. There are large scale industries, from animal husbandry or livestock to cattle rearing and food processing, which rely on conventional meat and other animal products. There may be substantial job loss, much of which may be compensated by new jobs created by the cultured meat industry. There will be economic changes too as farmers and anyone who is directly or indirectly associated with the meat industry, not as employees but as associates, affiliates or in any other capacity, may not have as much of an influence. However, new systems will take their place and hence the economic displacement may not be felt at all. Enterprises and professionals can always adapt. Such a switch should come naturally to them.
The most important difference between cultured meat and conventional meat pertains to health of consumers. It is no secret that the global meat industry uses everything from artificial hormones for optimum growth to antibiotics to protect the livestock from diseases. Such synthetic growth hormones, antibiotics and various other chemicals used in feeds as well as other medicines find their way into the meat that consumers eventually buy. Cultured meat will not have any such antibiotics, drugs or medicines, synthetic hormones or chemicals in feeds. Any preservative or chemical agent that is used in the production of lab grown meat can be got rid of before the final product is ready for the consumer. Animals are also known to be carriers of various pathogens. There are worms in undercooked and raw meats. There can be microbes too but those are usually neutralized during cooking. Lab grown meat will have no such possibility as the whole process is completely scientifically monitored. The whole process is actually entirely science and nothing is left to chance or nature.
It is possible that there will be some wrinkles in the initial years of mass production. There may be issues with some products of a few companies but by and large there is no doubt that cultured meat will be much safer than conventional meat. Many critics have highlighted the difference in nutrients. When only a certain kind of muscle or type of tissues is grown in a lab, only a few nutrients can be assured as compared to more available in meat that has been procured from an actual animal. Lab grown meat does not have fat right now. Although fat is not the most desirable element of meat, still it reflects the kind of difference between cultured meat and conventional meat. By the time cultured meat hits the markets in substantial quantities, it will have all the nutrients that conventional meat offers without any of the harmful elements. It is also possible for cultured meat to have more nutrients than those in conventional meat. Lab grown meat can be infused with nutrients that are deemed desirable and necessary for certain dietary or nutritional requirements.
The world is poised for a much greener, safer and better tomorrow if cultured meat starts to replace conventional meat. Even if one tenth of the conventional meat market is replaced, the implications will be manifold and the entire world will get to witness the difference. If the entire conventional market is replaced, then the world will witness a fascinating transformation. The global meat industry including everything from poultry to beef, fish to eggs and more accounts for an alarming contribution to emission of greenhouse gases and hence global warming. The carbon footprint of the global industry, emissions of harmful gases like methane, the extensive farming techniques and the widespread exploitation of natural resources, from using corn and other foods as feeds to using pastures and effectively destroying natural vegetation, are wreaking a havoc on the world. All of these can come to a standstill and a reversal or restoration is possible if cultured meat starts to replace conventional meat.
Cultured meat has a much pleasant and viable future if it gets as cheap as conventional meat. It is better for livestock, for human consumers, for the planet and for our entire ecosystem that is responsible for supporting all forms of life. The foods used to make the feeds can be put to better use. A few foods will become cheaper and other foods will become available to the impoverished regions of the world. Cultured meat will be able to meet the growing demands without adding to the environmental woes. There are many meat related health problems that affect millions of people of various ages around the world. If not all, many of these health problems can be averted by properly checking the nutrients in cultured meat and doing away with all unnecessary or potentially harmful components. This is presently not possible with conventional meat. Cultured or lab grown meat does away with the ethical or moral question of whether or not to consume an animal product. It paves the way for a new industry based on science with absolute control on the adverse fallouts. The only hurdle is mass adaptation.